letters from nairobi

Stranger in a Strange Land
February 28, 2012, 13:19
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I wholeheartedly believe that every person should travel alone at least once. Not just solo in transit – although navigating foreign bus terminals and customs forms present their own set of challenges – but to a destination where there is nobody waiting to pick you up, where nobody anticipates (or cares about) your arrival, or whether you have a place to stay or food to eat. Where you are, essentially and necessarily, on your own.

Experiences like this show us who we really are, illuminating all our strengths and weaknesses in stark detail.

On Sunday morning, I flew north to Samburu on a tiny, ten-seat airplane that mimicked the rhythm of a mutatu, stopping four times along the way to pick up and discharge passengers, in order to reach the village of Umoja (the setting for an article I am writing). Attempting to make plans in advance was useless, since the only person I was able to contact in the village spoke almost no English. My only choice was to get there and figure out what to do next.

When I climbed out of the tiny airplane, there was no one to meet me. No one who knew – or cared – that I had arrived. And that was the beginning of the adventure.

Over the next 24 hours – which spanned an eternity – I encountered a series of challenges, the boundaries and contours of which were fluid and ever-changing. Every attempt I made to plan even the simplest things – what to eat for dinner, for example, or how to find a taxi – stretched and twisted and bent in shape as a series of complications arose.

There was no choice but to surrender, be patient, and take deep breaths.

Meeting the women of Umoja – the subject of the forthcoming article – was an incredible experience in and of itself. It was the purpose of the trip. But what surprised me were all of the other moments that I will remember: getting into a shouting match with a park ranger with bloodshot eyes, who told me I was the rudest person he had ever met (“And I’ve worked here since 1973!”) because I refused to pay the $70 park entrance fee where the plane landed; bouncing and rattling through the semi-arid park – a climate I had never seen before, filled with fiery brush and craggy, twisting branches scalded by the hot sun; drinking beer at sunset in the village, watching a shepherd guide his herd of plodding cattle across a river where children bathed and somersaulted into the cool waters; riding on the back of a motorbike in the darkness under a sky filled with stars; being the only mzungu at a Kenyan bar, talking to professors and park rangers and mothers about life in Africa and beyond; sleeping in a wasp-filled hut and using a restroom that consisted of a hole in the ground where cockroaches skittered along the walls; waking up to the sounds of crocodiles splashing in the nearby river; birdsong and music.

But I’m not intending to romanticize the experience. For every moment of excitement, of starry night skies and golden sunsets, there were three moments of stress and worry. I was appalled at the prices I was being charged for every tiny thing and spent a good deal of time fighting against the incessant fees. I bankrupted my checking account in no time. My translator and guide, who promised me a ride back to the air strip in the morning, got drunk and passed out, leaving me to ride around on the back of a motorbike through the nearby town, frantically trying to find transportation before my flight – the only one that day – departed. My every need – food, sleep, transportation, translation – was subordinate to the whims of others, which is a particularly frustrating form of powerlessness. In the end, if one of a million things went wrong – I got injured, or the mutatu taking me to the air strip broke down and I missed my flight, or I was bitten by a snake or stung by a scorpion in the brush, or I was detained by a police officer for not having the “right paperwork” – in the end, it was only me who would be truly affected, who would have to face the consequences. It’s a position both liberating and terrifying.

Merely navigating the logistics of the situation, let alone accomplishing the work I needed for the article, was a trying experience. But when I boarded the tiny plane back to Nairobi, hair filled with dust and arms streaked with dirt, and leaned back in the beige leather seat, I let out a breath I had been holding since dawn the previous day.

Everyone should have one day like that. It makes coming home feel like a triumph.


2 Comments so far
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What a true and moving post! It made me realize that I have never been on my own quite like this — there have always been friends or hosts or fellow-travelers to cushion the shocks and uncertainties you describe. Paternal anxiety aside, you go, girl!!

Comment by Richard Rubenstein

[…] piece I wrote about Umoja, the women’s-only village in Samburu that I visited a few weeks ago, is now online. The text, and a few bonus photos not included in the published […]

Pingback by Where Men Now Fear to Tread « letters from nairobi

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